View From The Sidelines

By George Caulkin, Northern Sports Correspondent, The Times

There is poetry in football. There can be poetry in anything if you look hard enough, but it was football that first made me think about beauty and the power of description. Paul Gascoigne did it, on a pitch not too far from here, pink and pudgy, dipped in chip fat, hair too short, shorts too tight, ugly as sin and as sexy as it, too, all elbows and gurning, that violent form of artistry. He made creativity real and flawed and gorgeous. He made me want to write.

Football is the best of us – community, belonging, love, family, hope – and it is also the worst, crammed with venality and skewed thinking. When Newcastle United stated a couple of years ago that cup competitions were not a “priority”, they became a sporting institution no longer straining for sporting glory, but then this is the landscape which surrounds us; a health service forced to fixate on targets, big companies focussing on shareholders above employees and making things.

Patrick Marber’s brilliant, hilarious, emotional play captures that modern conflict and places it in the dressing-room of a non-league club, the pressure, the obsession, the challenge of existence, the questions of loyalty infused with the poetic. Football and football writing has its own peculiar, archaic vernacular – a string of chances, gaffer, dink, profligate – and Marber gilds and subverts it, lifting it towards the epic. The boy’s a bit special.

Sitting in on rehearsals, from the first script reading, has been a transformative, joyous experience, watching the growth of a team, the worth of a skilled manager (or director, in this case), the attention to detail, the depth of talent, how the best at what they do feed off and anticipate each other. Stephen Tompkinson, Johnny Bowler and Dean Bone flow together, strive for something and grasp it. All those things are transferable from (good) sport.

Mine, theoretically, is a glorious job. Being paid to watch football is ridiculous, but when the football is poor or teams stop trying or clubs take decisions which feel small or cold or agonising, my concern has always been that the corrosion rubs off. If you care, it eats at you. In the last few years, the Northern League, where The Red Lion has been recast, has filled many a free Saturday. It provides meaning, proximity, feeling.

The same applies to Live Theatre and the dedicated people who work here, a place that has become vital in more ways than I can explain but which, at its essence, has reminded me that artistry and teamwork thrive in our region, that poetry is there if you look for it. I’d give a lot to see Gascoigne again, the ball coating his boots, the sunlamp shine, barging and floating down the pitch, to feel what I felt. This place, this play, come desperately close. Enjoy the game.

The Red Lion plays at Live Theatre from Thursday 6 April to Saturday 6 May.  Tickets cost £10 -£26 concs from £6.  Book tickets and find out more

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